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Let’s Play #11 – Figuring Out The Best Fingerings

While some feel rules are made to be broken, there are a couple of common practices that are worth following
by Jerry Kovarsky


If you find at times that you are jumping around somewhat clumsily when playing passages, or can’t connect some notes in a phrase smoothly, or just keep hitting some wrong notes, you should spend some time working out fingerings for the music at hand. We can’t always just “fake it”, or assume it’ll work itself out. This is not a difficult thing to do, and is time well spent to improve your playing.

A Few Basics

While some feel rules are made to be broken, there are a couple of common practices that are worth following.

  1. In general, don’t use your thumb on black keys. Doing so moves your hand forward, or to the back on the keyboard, which makes it harder to reach the white keys. And not all synth keyboards play well as your finger moves to the back of the white keys. Some say that the shorter fingers (the thumb and the pinky, or 5th finger) should stay on white keys, and the longer “inner” fingers (the index, middle and ring fingers, 2, 3 and 4) be used for the black keys. Note: If you are playing music that is predominately on the black keys, and starts on a black key then this advice doesn’t apply.

  2. Try to use all, or as many of your fingers as possible in executing passages. It’s tempting to only use the first three fingers, which tend to be the strongest, but your playing will sound smoother using more.

  3. Similarly, try to keep your hand in a position that covers as many of the notes in the passage as possible. Think of it as economy of motion. No need to move around more than you need just because you couldn’t cover one note at the end of a phrase.

  4. If you have never studied how to play scales and arpeggios in basic piano lessons/pedagogy it would be good to work on these concepts. The fingerings and technique you learn from them will be very helpful in figuring out how to execute new music, since many passages will be based on these two musical constructs. 

Four Common Scenarios

We can identify four types of situations you will face when playing a musical phrase.

The first is notes that all fit easily within the same hand position. Wherever you are required to place your hand to reach the notes in the phrase (is it all on the white notes? What black keys are involved?), all the notes will be sitting under your fingers. These phrases are easy, and usually don’t require much working out. Just play the right notes! Here’s a few phrases that fit easily, using different combinations of white and black keys:

This last version is an example of where you would place the thumb on a black key:

The second scenario is a phrase that requires you to stretch beyond a five-note grouping, but can be played without moving your hand position completely around. Of course you may need to extend and then contract your fingers a bit. Let’s see how that works:

In the first version, I stretch from the thumb on the C to the 3rd finger on the G. The notes that follow all fall under the rest of the fingers fine, and you see how the pinky/5th finger is used for the B-flat note, and then extends a bit further to reach the upper C. From there I extend the second finger lower to get to the E-flat, which actually fits well/feels comfortable for the hand.

There usually is more than one choice for how to finger a passage, so in the second version I chose an approach that doesn’t cause me to use my pinky/5th finger on the B-flat. Since so many of the notes fit under a close hand position I chose to extend from my thumb to the 2nd finger to get to the G, which then allows my hand to feel even more comfortable for the rest of the phrase. After playing that first stretched interval I bring my thumb back up to the rest of the fingers so I can use it again for the F note. Now my 4th finger is available for the B-flat, and then I can finish the phrase as in the first version.

Here’s another example:

In the first version everything fits well in a close hand position, and I only extend the 5th finger from the A to the B-flat. Some may feel the E-flat to E natural fingering up to the B-flat a little scrunched up/tight, so in the second version I bring my thumb under to play the E natural, and then need it to return to the original position to finish out the final C. This “moving the thumb” technique comes from how we play scales.

The third scenario is a passage that requires you to make a large jump to another part of the keyboard. Your fingering decision will be affected by what notes you will be required to play once in that new range. You always want to put your hand into a position that will cover the most notes of the rest of the phrase without having to move again.

The phrase starts out with a spread hand position, but it’s not too bad. When the jump happens in the second bar the first note is a black key, so I avoid using the thumb and do a quick cross-over of the 2nd finger, allowing my hand to then settle into a comfortable position with the thumb on the C.

Not all the jumps will happen suddenly. Look at this example:

After playing the opening four notes I bring my thumb up to the F to adjust my hand position for the phrase leading up into the high G. Then I can bring the rest of my fingers back together to play the last notes in a comfortable, closed position. If I wanted to avoid the large stretch from the F to the high G I can try the variation that follows. After the F and B-flat I again bring the thumb under to get to the closed hand shape sooner.

The last scenario is a phrase, or run that keeps climbing up or down the keyboard. This type of movement involves the type of fingerings and technique that is used to play scales. So your study of them will become the basis for how you approach similar phrases.

In traditional piano technique, the C Major scale is fingered like this:

As you can see from the notation in the first bar, after playing the E with your 3rd finger you would cross your thumb under the hand/shift your hand so you could use your thumb on the F that follows. The same thing happens after playing the B with your 4th finger to move into the second octave of the scale. This technique of bringing the thumb under to smoothly move the hand to successively higher positions is the key to playing these types of phrases smoothly. So practice those scales!

Using this technique we can approach this next example is a similar fashion:

After the first four notes we bring the thumb under to continue the climb up from the D. After the next four notes we need to make a sudden jump up again bringing the thumb under to play the C. This type of jump can be hard to execute without accenting that C: be careful not to do that. After the next three notes we again bring the thumb under to E and settle into the last hand position.

To avoid that possible accent on the big jump you can try this alternate approach:

Here, in the second bar we only play a two-note grouping (D and E-flat) before bringing the thumb under again so we can play through to the high C smoother. Then we do the jump into the next D, which may feel better for you. From there the hand again settles into position for the rest of the phrase.

In Review

I hope you can see that with a little forethought and analysis you can figure out effective fingerings for anything that you are required to play. It’s important to not just fake it: if you play it slightly differently each time then your practice is not really doing anything for you. Knowing that there is often more than one approach to a figure, it’s worth taking the time to find the one that feels most comfortable for you, and helps you to avoid making mistakes.

Jerry Kovarsky

Jerry Kovarsky is highly respected  in the music industry. For more than 30 years, he worked as brand manager, product manager, marketing director, product developer, and product demonstrator for Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboardist, synthesist, and author of Keyboard for Dummies, Jerry passionately advocates for making music with keyboards. After studying at the University of Miami and graduating from William Peterson College with a BA in Jazz Studies, an opportunity to demonstrate early portable keyboards sidetracked his professional aspirations. He likes living at the intersection of technology and art, balancing his time between writing, sound design, practicing and playing keyboards and his new granddaughter.

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